In the days before the internet and social media, there was little uproar when a good show went bad. No fanzines started ragging on it regularly; no bloggers started penning "whatever happened to" posts -- and if the ratings took a simultaneous tumble, there were no online number-crunchers wondering how long it would take before the network staged a sit-down with the showrunner. If a long-running series took a wrong turn, viewers simply waited it out. The mea culpa that Knots Landing creator David Jacobs offered up seven episodes into Season 13 was rare for the time -- an Executive Producer admitting his show had lost its way and asking for another chance -- but he had no choice but to go public: the show was shutting down production to bring in a new headwriter. Word was bound to get out. But that sort of exchange between the creative team and the audience has since become commonplace. Nowadays, a half-season of subpar episodes or sliding ratings, and the showrunner will be out talking to the fans, assuring them he's "making adjustments." Some network honcho will take to the Television Critics Association, to let them know that the situation is under control; the show will soon be "back on track."
If Season 11 of Knots Landing aired today, then midway through the season, there no doubt would be outcries from fandom about how dark and dreary the series had become, and gurus would be swift to note that its ratings had declined dramatically from the previous season. And viewers would be assured that changes were on the way. And when people, in the far future, spoke about Knots Landing Season 11, they probably would divide the season into two parts -- maybe Season 11A and 11B -- to delineate the point where it "got good again." Because the truth is, it's hard to view Knots Landing Season 11 as one season. Earlier seasons have course corrections, but they're more subtle. The one that Season 11 undergoes, two-thirds of the way through, is mammoth. A half-dozen characters added; a half-dozen characters jettisoned. Stories that seemed designed to dominate the season wrapped up without explanation; new plotlines introduced at the drop of a hat. The salvage job that showrunners and headwriters Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham perform at the start of the third (and final) block of Knots Landing Season 11 is nothing short of amazing; it absolutely rescues the season. But perhaps as interesting as the salvage job itself is what got them there in the first place.
Lechowick and Latham were headwriters on Knots Landing from Season 8 through Season 12, longer than any other writers. Their tenure began under a cloud, with an underwhelming first season that jettisoned traditional story-telling and beloved characters for a series of flashbacks and "gotcha!" misdirects. They recovered -- beautifully -- in Season 9 by returning to basics, and emboldened by their success, proceeded confidently into Season 10. Season 10 is marked by one great story-line, one great pairing, and one great exit. The story-line: the fallout from Jill's attempted murder of Val (the Season 9 cliffhanger), which Lechowick and Latham expertly sustain for nineteen episodes. The pairing: Greg and Paige, a legitimately appealing May-December romance that, in Season 9, had seemed to exist only in Paige's head. The exit: Abby's, when Donna Mills decided Season 10 would be her last. Mills' departure was so publicized that even The Wall Street Journal wrote it up on the day her last episode aired; they also noted, as many in the business had observed, that Knots had broken the pattern of declining soap ratings by seeing its audience increase over the previous season. By the late '80s, primetime soaps simply didn't do that. Lechowick and Latham were clearly on an artistic roll.
Or were they? What got overlooked at the time -- as viewers took wagers on how Abby would be written off, while critics marveled at the show's ascending ratings -- is that the final batch of Season 10 story-lines were largely awful. Mack started fantasizing about a younger woman; Gary fell into a flirtation with someone who misdialed him; Val began dating her computer repairman. Even Abby's story-line, which tapped into the tropes of film noir, got caught up in its own cleverness, as happened more and more during the Lechowick-Latham era. What was good about the end of Season 10 was how the show ultimately disposed of Abby: a neat twist that seemed both nimble and fitting. And not unreasonably, the writers chose to send her off in the season's penultimate episode, and used the finale to assure viewers the series would be just fine without her. (They lucked out in terms of scheduling, since the final two episodes aired as a two-hour special -- so Abby left, and then the show continued for an hour without her.) The season finale was the first time the show beat its chief competition, L.A. Law, in first-run episodes.
And so Lechowick and Latham started planning Season 11 emboldened. Audiences clearly loved what they were doing. But when the first episode of Season 11 aired the following fall, ratings were down 30% from the end of the previous season. And you could argue that a large segment of the audience wasn't interested in watching the show without Donna Mills -- except they'd kept watching that last hour of Season 10, even after Abby rolled away in her white stretch limo. They simply hadn't liked what they'd seen after that: the one-hour "life without Abby" preview had been a disaster. (One of the cliffhangers involved Mack getting sprayed by a skunk; it was a fitting metaphor for the stench that permeated the final episode.) But imagining the finale's high ratings were a stamp of viewer approval, Lechowick and Latham decided to shake things up for Season 11. Why not? They had done so at the start of Season 9, and it had been a smashing success. But the Season 9 overhaul was a course correction; the Season 11 reinvention was hubris. And at the end of the day, Lechowick and Latham weren't at their best when they were empowered; they were at their best when they were humbled. (They dug themselves out of a hole better than just about any scripters in the business.)
The reboot that marks Season 11 is apparent from the opening credits. For ten seasons, the show had offered some variation on the same theme: shots of the leading actors in alphabetical order. For Season 11, we get sculpted sandcastles, with waves threatening to wash them away. The absence of the actors' faces proves prophetic: more than a few core characters will vanish from the show's canvas as the season progresses, either in terms of visibility or recognizability. Tonya Crowe, after eight seasons, is elevated to series regular -- and instantly marginalized. Michele Lee is left without a plot for two-thirds of the season; Lynne Moody is similarly stranded -- in fact, she barely gets any airtime at all. And the character of Valene Gibson is essentially recast as what Joan Van Ark would accurately call "the village idiot." The established actors make way for no less than nine supporting players who come to dominate the Season 11 landscape.
But it's not just the (mis)use of the cast that sets Season 11 apart. When Knots began, it was about four couples living in a West Coast cul-de-sac; with its hot tubs and backyard BBQ's, it celebrated a certain Southern California lifestyle. As characters started to move away from Seaview Circle, the vacation resort Lotus Point took its place as the go-to location: with three key characters stationed there, most of the plots could easily be threaded through this new "sun and fun" setting. But halfway through Season 10, Lechowick and Latham decided to move the Sumner Group to a high-rise office, no doubt in response to the success of L.A. Law. So Greg, wife Abby and assistant Paige moved to new digs, where they were joined by assorted bit players: the unctuous Mort, the nebbishy Bob. And in Season 11, the Sumner Group becomes the principal setting: Karen's son Michael is hired by Sumner, and more flunkies make their way up the company ranks. And the look of the show shifts dramatically, as Knots goes corporate.
There's a tonal shift as well. The emboldening of Lechowick and Latham at the top of Season 11 means more of the "unpredictability" on which they prided themselves. (Latham once boasted to the press that their Knots audience never knew what to expect from episode to episode. She didn't see that that obsessive need to impress the viewer was also their greatest flaw.) As the season gets underway, the story-telling seems jittery and disorienting -- and ultimately, you come to realize it's because Lechowick and Latham are skipping over key plot points, to spring them later as "surprises." At times, they seem to be plotting backwards from the next big reveal.
Gary -- as he was in the final third of Season 10 -- is still engaged in a flirtation with "Sally's friend," the woman he's never met. But as Season 11 starts, the presentation is baffling. When Sally's friend first telephoned Gary, and throughout Season 10, her features were concealed. It was clearly done to suggest that Gary's deranged ex Jill was still alive. The back of her head was much the same; it was all -- like Jill's hair -- a big tease: "Did Jill somehow survive?" (Teri Austin's name remained in the opening credits contractually; Lechowick and Latham used that to their advantage.) As Season 11 starts, Sally's friend is still being hidden: we see her photographed through vases, or close-ups of her legs caressing the telephone base. But Teri Austin is no longer in the opening credits, and the voice doesn't sound like her anymore. So why the mystery? Meanwhile, Val and Danny's relationship has heated up. "It's incredibly wonderful just to be around him," Val tells Karen. "Everything is right about him. It's as if falling in love just happened, and there's nothing you can do about it." Later on, she admits, in riotous hyperbole, "I have never loved anyone this much -- not even Gary." They're accelerating Val and Danny's relationship -- you just don't know why. Joan Van Ark and Sam Behrens do their best with what they're given, but because there's no smoldering chemistry between them, the audience is never persuaded to accept the leaps that the writers are making. And the writers know it. So they fall back on a familiar Lechowick-Latham tactic: having the characters speak for the audience. First Val expresses disbelief at how fast the relationship is progressing, then Karen expresses disbelief -- as if that will preempt our own disbelief.
We eventually learn why the story-telling has been so angular. Lechowick and Latham have decided to link Gary and Val's story-lines by having Danny and "Sally's friend" turn out to be -- get this -- husband and wife. It's an absurd contrivance, but by holding off the reveal for five episodes, and having it come when we least expect it, Lechowick and Latham try to turn it into a great twist. (In the world of television, a great twist is an absurd contrivance the writers aren't embarrassed by.) And the only way they can pull off the reveal -- that Danny is married to Sally's friend, a.k.a. Amanda -- is by continuing to hide Amanda's face. You can forgive one bad coincidence -- but how about three? Because Amanda is also the twins' schoolteacher. Oh, and she sings at the same club as Val's next-door neighbor Frank. And the reason the writers have fast-tracked Danny and Val's relationship? Because Danny is going to do something heinous in a few episodes, and Val needs to be totally committed to him by then, for maximum conflict. The plotting hasn't been this cold and calculated since Season 7.
While all that's going on, Mack has gotten involved in a case of corporate corruption. Correction: another case of corporate corruption. It's a plotline that feels stale even before it gets underway. A company called Oakman Industries has liquidated its pension fund, and is silencing any employees who speak out. This plot drags on for almost fifteen episodes, and why should we care? It doesn't impact anyone in the cast, except Val's Aunt Ginny, arguably the least interesting character who ever stuck around for three seasons. (One episode ends with Mack faced with the prospect that Aunt Ginny committed murder: "Not Aunt Ginny. No way! Not Aunt Ginny" -- as if Aunt Ginny being carted off to jail wouldn't be a relief.) Another ill-advised plot features the return of Eric's wife Linda, who needs to stay with the MacKenzies while Eric is working overseas. Within a few episodes, Eric's brother Michael falls for her. Of course he does: he fell for his step-sister Paige in Season 8; that story was such a disaster, let's revive it -- now he can fall in love with his sister-in-law. But in order to accomplish it, Lechowick and Latham have to rewrite the character of Linda. They introduced her in Season 9 as aggressively opinionated, the kind of know-it-all Twenty-something you avoid at parties. Her only virtue was that she made Eric happy. Now they have to try to excuse her flaws -- and eventually, erase them: not just so Michael can fall for her, but so their forbidden love can be the stuff of tragedy. But because they still need to justify the tension between Linda and Eric, they throw her worst traits onto him, intimating that the marriage failed because he was always judging her. It's exactly the kind of thing Knots didn't do: rewrite years of history to accommodate new story-lines.
To be fair, the top of Season 11 gets a few things right. Paige gets a new boyfriend, dirty cop Tom Ryan, and in a season where the romantic pairings largely fall flat (Penny Peyser's Amanda seems less like a potential love interest for Ted Shackelford and more like his goofy kid sister), Joey Gian and Nicollette Sheridan have sensational chemistry. The coupling of William Devane and Melinda Culea isn't as persuasive, but it's charming. When she tells him that she doesn't want to be his rebound from Paige, he counters that he has no expectations; he's simply delighted to discover that, when you're at your lowest, "Someone new can come into your life and brighten it up." It's such a healthy, sane way of looking at a new relationship -- and such an improvement over watching Greg pine after Paige early in the season, like a voyeuristic schoolboy -- that you're inclined to be patient. And although Behrens and Van Ark don't convince romantically, and although Shackelford and Peyser are a mismatch, Behrens and Peyser seem believable as an embattled husband and wife; his intensity is nicely matched by her smart-aleck delivery. You can see the attraction -- and you understand why the marriage failed.
But back to the Gary-Val-Danny-Amanda quadrangle, because that's going to dominate the first two-thirds of the season. Once the "big reveal" is over, it's time for the main event -- and with horror, you realize the main event is a sexual assault. Danny rapes Amanda at the end of episode 9, and from there, the writers instantly flip from "look how clever we are" to "look how responsible we are." With great power comes great responsibility; the new Lechowick and Latham aren't merely going to entertain -- they're going to educate. They're taking up a social issue, determined to encourage a healthy dialogue -- but you can't get away from the fact that all the contrived plotting up to this point has been designed mostly to put Val solidly, foolishly, in Danny's camp, setting her and Gary at odds. And "Sally's friend," who's been teased for a dozen episodes by that point, is revealed just in time to be assaulted. They essentially introduce a character solely so she can be raped. It's so cutthroat in conception, you can't imagine the execution could be any worse -- but it is. Lechowick writes the episode after Gary learns of the assault -- it's called "Twice Victim" -- and it's a series low point. He structures the episode around a series of monologues -- rhetorical questions that are asked and answered, with key words repeated for emphasis -- and while the speeches are being delivered, the other characters sit in rapt attention. The drama stops dead in its tracks; what's left is a public service announcement, or maybe an afterschool special. Gary tells Amanda that he's going to seek revenge on Danny, and she turns it around on him:
Amanda: That'll make you feel better, won't it? What? You gonna beat him up? You gonna break his arm? Then what happens? Who does he take it out on? Does he take it out on me? On Val? On her kids? And then what? Do you break his jaw? And then what? What does he break? And what do you break? And then what? And then what?
Later, it's Gary's turn to pontificate, while Mack sits uncharacteristically mute:
Gary: I know better than to blame the victim. I'm enlightened. But. But. If only she hadn't gone to his apartment. If only she divorced him earlier. If only. If only I'd exercised perfect judgment my whole life. I mean, you can't fault someone for bad judgment, right? Yeah, right. I'd be condemned for half the things I've ever done. It doesn't matter why she went to his apartment. She could be the dumbest, most irresponsible person in the world -- she could've been drunk and stark naked standing in front of him, and she still had the right not to be raped. I know that. I believe that. So why do I have all these questions? I mean, why do I have even the slightest doubt?
And finally, when Amanda decides to report the rape, but is informed that no evidence can be lifted because she showered after, Lechowick offers up his most stultifying sermon, reducing Amanda to a mouthpiece:
Amanda: You know what is really odd about this whole thing? I feel like I've done something wrong. Isn't that weird? You know that shower I took right after: the "mistake" shower that destroyed evidence? I took that shower because... because I felt so dirty. I felt dirty. I just wanted to wash. I didn't think of him as dirty, I thought of myself as dirty. I mean, people have that image of a rape victim -- they think she's dirty. Not consciously -- probably not consciously -- but they do think that. Maybe that's why after I admitted I was raped, I felt so bad I admitted it. Did you hear that? I said "admit." Are there any other crimes we "admit" happened to us? Do we admit that we were robbed? No, we just say we were robbed. We don't admit we were mugged or beaten up, we just say it. But we commonly say, or hear, "She admitted she was raped." I "admitted" I was raped. Listen to that. It's as though I'm guilty of something. Or of being lesser or dirty or something. Why is that, Gary? Why do I "admit" to being raped?
It's not compelling as drama, nor is it convincing as rhetoric. One doesn't want to belittle a story-line that attempts to open a dialogue about sexual assault. But there's a way of doing it that draws people in, that makes them receptive and empathetic. And there's a way of doing it that feels so pompous and relentless that you want to tune it out, like a bad college lecture.
Don't hate the message; blame the messenger.
The first block of Season 11 undermines some characters, under-uses others, and sacrifices both drama and entertainment for heavy-handed moralizing. In some ways, the second block is worse. The Oakman Industries investigation gets extended, as Sumner's daughter Mary Frances (unseen since Season 5) turns up to expose another company scandal. Mary Frances doesn't resemble the Mary Frances we last saw (she's played by a different actress, but that's not what I mean) -- but there's no attempt at character consistency where Linda is concerned, and she was just introduced in Season 9, so why respect the backstory of a character introduced six "long" years ago? When last seen, she was a typical teenager with a burgeoning libido. As reintroduced, Mary Frances (or "Mare," as she says her friends call her -- her friends presumably being Rhoda and Brenda Morgenstern) is now a surly young woman, angry with her father for all the years of neglect and his lack of business ethics. "Why'd you even bother having a kid?" she berates him in a newly-filmed flashback. "Did you think it would look good on your resume?" Back from Africa with a BS in biology, she's sullen, a bore. She announces, "I've worked for two years with families who've had to watch their children starve and die," as if she deserves a medal, and starts psychoanalyzing her father: "You raised a child exactly how you were raised." If you thought the rape story-line was numbing, here comes Miss Doom & Gloom of 1990.
Mary Frances is killed off after one episode, but we can't catch a break. The next episode is her funeral; in the one after that, she's back as a ghost. You can practically hear Lechowick and Latham salivating in the writer's room: "Let's do an episode where Mary Frances comes back to haunt Greg." "Ooh, and maybe we can bring back Howard Duff as Sumner's father." "Twin ghosts! What a concept!" Two seasons earlier, Lechowick and Latham never would have imagined or dared an episode about "twin ghosts" (can you imagine Paul Galveston turning up after Laura's funeral?), but the newly unleashed headwriters have no boundaries -- or shame. Both the funeral and the ghost episode are written by Lechowick, and part of what's wrong with Season 11 is how many of the scripts are his. Typically he and Latham shared scripting duties equally with others on the writing staff, but in Season 11, Lechowick writes 3 of the first 5 episodes, 8 of the first 17. He sets the tone for the first two-thirds of the season, and it's deadly, because his worst habits are on display. The heavy-handedness, the self-referentialism, the conceptual plotting that strains credulity and common sense. And an alarming willingness to sacrifice character consistency for cheap theatrics.
Funeral episodes are dour by definition, and funeral episodes for a character you just met -- one whom you're not even mourning -- can be brutal; you need a fresh approach to keep them from feeling static and oppressive. Lechowick does just the opposite of what you want him to do; he makes Mary Frances's funeral as grim as possible, choosing -- as the key subplot -- to revisit the rape story-line. Hearing that Val is considering marriage to Danny, Gary threatens her:
Gary: Wherever you are, wherever my children are, I'm going to be watching you. And at your wedding, when the minister says, "If anybody has any objections, speak now or forever hold your peace," I'm gonna yell, "Rapist! Rapist! Rapist!"
(You want to shout at the TV screen: "And then what? And then what?")
As for the ghostly, ghastly follow-up, entitled "My Bullet," it's a "very special episode" that -- like the rape monologues -- brings the show to a grinding halt, as two characters rise from the dead to indulge in aphorisms and clichés. ("Girlie has a pair of legs I'd like to wrap around me twice," Galveston drawls, drooling over Paula. His chauvinism was entertaining in Season 6 as a foil for businesswomen Abby and Karen. Here, he's just spouting offensive one-liners.) Sumner tries to escape them by fleeing to Mack and Karen's, but the ghosts show up in his car. "Trying to get away from us, but it won't work," Mare informs him. "And we don't have to bother with seat-belts," Galveston quips. And the next bit is pure vaudeville: Greg responds, "Aw, shut up," and his driver delivers the requisite punch-line: "I didn't say anything, sir." Ba-dum-tsh. Lechowick isn't resuscitating Mary Frances and Paul Galveston to drag Greg into greater depths of despair -- or to offer him new insight or awareness. They're just there so Lechowick can try something different, do something "unpredictable," show how clever he can be. (The difference between a character-driven soap and a writer-driven one is that, in the latter case, you can hear the scripters, at every turn, going, "What if...?" That question pops up ever more frequently during the Lechowick-Latham era: "What if we start Laura's funeral with just the principals present?" "What if we riff on that new Ann Landers column?" "What if we imagine all the ways Danny might have died?" And of course, "What if Sumner sees ghosts?" There's even an episode early in Season 12 called "What If?" -- why disguise your calculated cunning when you can celebrate it?)
The ghost episode is made even worse by the subplot that underscores it. Karen and Mack's four-year-old Meg brings home a goldfish from the school carnival, and it dies. And so we get Karen and Mack debating how to tell Meg that her goldfish has gone belly-up. Ultimately Karen just replaces it with a new one, but not before linking the two story-lines for us, in case we weren't paying attention: "There's too much death already. She has plenty of time to learn about death."
The season's first block is about rape. The second block is about death. Where, we fear, do we go from there? We start with a creative shake-up: the departure, at the end of the second block, of two of the series' worst staff writers, Chuck Bulot and M.J. Cody, replaced by one of its best, Dianne Messina, returning to active duty for the first time since Season 8. (She'd written "Love In" in Season 9, one of the highlights of the Lechowick-Latham era, and would go on to pen "The Unknown," its last great episode.) Perhaps Messina arrived and said, with bemused horror, "What have you done to this show?" Perhaps Lechowick and Latham (and the reliable James Stanley, on staff since Season 9) realized on their own, after nearly twenty episodes, that nothing was working: that core characters were being underutilized, that too many plots were uninviting, that the tone was too grim and oppressive. But however it happened, it inspires the kind of clean-up job at which Lechowick and Latham excelled. With impressive precision, they make a series of smart moves that transform the season -- starting with a story-line for Michele Lee.
People remember Karen's Season 11 story-line as the one where she gets a stalker. That's not what's memorable about it. The stalker story-line works the first time you see it -- Lechowick and Latham keep laying traps, as they do so well, and you fall for every one of them -- but once it starts to heat up, it doesn't really have any place to go. (It ultimately dead-ends Karen four episodes into Season 12.) What's great about Karen's story isn't that they give her a stalker; it's that they give her Robin Strasser. Strasser, as her producer Diane, puts her on the defensive, and Karen's insecurities prompt her to push back, even when it's ill-advised. What's brilliant about Open Mike, once that story takes off, is that you can see exactly why Karen would succeed as a talk-show host -- her intelligence, her passion, her advocacy, and her lack of artifice are ready-made for TV -- but you can also see why a producer might consider her a prima donna. Karen Cooper Fairgate MacKenzie was, at her worst, opinionated and self-righteous. The people who loved her put up with that, first and foremost because she was generally right. But in a work environment in which she's a novice, where others know much more about putting on a show than she does, her know-it-all attitude can be galling. It's an opportunity to see Karen at both her best and her worst, and it's often those times that Michele Lee excels the most. Her acting choices are vivid and startling. In one of Strasser's first episodes, she takes down Karen, in brutal fashion, for introducing her son on the air: "You are what we loosely call the talent. And talent can be replaced." The brilliance of how Michele Lee pitches her response is that she doesn't get defiant, which would be the expected choice; instead, she gets teary. She gets emotional about the public dressing-down. Her voice shaking, she insists, haltingly, "I was hired to do a talk show... and I talk about things that I think are important to the audience... and I think family is very important to the audience -- and if it's not, it should be." It's about the first time in Season 11 that you go, "Oh my God, that is some great acting."
Pretty much everything turns around for the final block of the season. It's obviously not just the return of Messina to the writing staff that makes all the difference, but it's hard to ignore that her first script of the season -- the twentieth, "Wrong for Each Other" -- puts the first nineteen episodes to shame. "Wrong for Each Other" marks the return of Paige's mother Anne, which is cause enough for celebration -- but more notable is how fully rounded all the characters seem. Messina digs deep. Tom has a magnificent speech in which he explains to Paige how his life has changed since he met her, and she realizes how similar their childhoods were, both of them neglected by their mothers and forced to fend for themselves. We've seen enough of the steamy and stormy side of their relationship; now Messina start to cultivate the sweet side, and it does wonders for both of them. It starts to feel like a relationship worth investing in.
Later in the episode, Karen questions why Paula is spending all her time at the hospital, at Greg's bedside. (He's been shot by Mare's boyfriend, who -- befitting the histrionic middle block of Season 11 -- turned out to be a psychopath.) Paula offers up a passionate defense:
Paula: Because I'm in love with him. Come on, he's an incredible man. He was a prominent senator. He's been married to some phenomenal women. But in the biggest crisis of his life, he's alone: no friends, no family, a paid employee who comes to the hospital with his pajamas. You might say that that's because he's self-serving, mean and shallow. Someone else might say it's because he's sensitive and afraid of being hurt, so he alienates himself from the people who want to be close to him. I don't want to be there in case he dies. I want to be there in case he lives.
On the surface, it's Paula justifying her attraction to Greg; underneath, it's Messina reestablishing what makes Sumner such a fascinating character. (It's knowledge that's going to come in handy later in the season, when we're asked to forgive and empathize with some of his most abhorrent behavior -- ironically, directed towards Paula herself.) It defines and humanizes him in a few sentences, in a way that "My Bullet" failed to do in an entire episode.
Later still, there's a moving scene where Eric, who's returned to town, realizes that his marriage is over, and that it's time to move on. As he sobs in Karen's arms, she assures him, "You deserve to be happy" -- and then, in the next scene, alone with Mack, reflecting on her own life when she was Eric's age, growing up on the East Coast, she expresses an unexpected regret:
Karen: I wish we lived where it snowed. It'd be different if it snowed. Eric's leaving -- I just hate what happened to him. I'm so worried about Michael. I wish I'd raised my sons where it snowed. They would have known what it was like to have to shovel the snow and... the walks... Feel the cold air. Slip on the ice. They could've seen how pretty the snow could be -- and how dangerous. How it could get sooty and stay that way for weeks. How inconvenient. How wonderful. How... out of our hands. Snow would've been good for them.
It's the question every mother agonizes over: how do I keep my children from getting hurt? And the answer Karen considers is not only specific to her background, but to Eric and Michael's: two naïve young men who keeps setting themselves up for heartbreak. Messina doesn't posture that Eric and Michael's upbringing has left them unprepared for life's vagaries. She simply put the question out there and lets it linger – and then has Karen concede the foolishness of second-guessing ("Maybe it doesn't matter") before getting to the heart of what really pains her: "I miss them so much when they're not here." In a season that has set most of its plots in a corporate high-rise with tinted windows, this one speech restores Knots to its roots. It reasserts that however much the Sumner Group seems to dominate the proceedings, the heart of the show is in Seaview Circle: that cul-de-sac overlooking the sea, in the land of perpetual sunshine.
The half-dozen episodes starting with "Wrong for Each Other" are as good as any six-episode run in Knots history. The writers get everything right, pulling the plug on the worst stories (Oakman Industries is never mentioned again), and re-energizing the ones that have grown static. They instantly flip two relationships for the better. Tom, after lying to Paige for a dozen episodes, comes clean about his past -- and she forgives him. Val, who's been foolishly defending Danny against the rape charges, learns the truth -- and takes action. The evolution of Paige and Tom's relationship gives us romance; the dissolution of Val and Danny's marriage gives us suspense. And the return of Anne Matheson gives us a sense of fun that the season has been sorely lacking. Paula observes of Anne, "She is constantly performing. There is not one sincere word that comes out of that woman's mouth" -- but that's just what the show craves at this point: an antidote to all the gloom. When Paula asks her what she's going to do when she can't fit into a size 4 any longer ("Size 3," Anne is quick to correct), Anne simply replies, "Enjoy life. What else is there?" After a second act haunted by ghosts, it's so nice to see someone so joyously alive.
But then, all the characters come to life during the final third of Season 11, particularly the women: Karen, defending herself against Diane's attacks; Val, trying to reclaim her dignity once Danny's actions and lies are exposed; Paige, finding herself (despite her father's objections) falling for Tom, and willing to take the matrimonial plunge. The scene in which Tom gives Paige a garnet engagement ring, during a picnic, is some of the loveliest work the actors do together; it's also another glorious piece of writing by Messina. And the follow-up later in the episode, in which new client Mrs. Richfield spots Paige's garnet and expresses her approval, has one of my favorite pieces of advice Knots ever imparted: "Never worry about anything that's replaceable." Here's to you, Mrs. Richfield. (In the same episode, when Pat is in a coma and Julie refuses to leave her bedside, Frank observes, "One who won't go to sleep; one who can't wake up." Some of Messina's lines play like poetry. She brings not only clarity to the season, but elegance.)
The final block of Season 11 marks the departure of three fine actresses. The writers can't figure out what to do with them, so they dispose of them. But at least -- over three consecutive episodes -- they give them three great send-offs.
Ah, Tonya Crowe. Lechowick and Latham had Abby disown her daughter before she left town in Season 10, and promised us that one of the Season 11 story-lines would be "Will Olivia, left penniless, become as scheming as her mother?" But Olivia doesn't become anything; she's barely there -- appearing in only three of the first nine episodes, and then only to fight with her husband Harold. It's as if the writers consciously said, "Let's keep Olivia and Harold around, and see if we can drain all the charm out of their relationship." When Olivia implores Harold, ten episodes in, "I don't want to fight about money anymore," you can practically hear the actress begging the writers for a fresh story-line. Olivia and Harold don't even get a plotline till halfway through the season. Newly separated, they try to make money in the ways they know best: Olivia gets in on some insider trading and makes a killing in the market; Harold bets on a football game, and loses it all. At Mary Frances's funeral, Harold recognizes Tom from their mutual mob connections, and you can see a plan form in his mind. It's a sensational idea; it feels fresh -- and it goes no place. The writers ship him off to Florida an episode later, and you realize that for all their pledges to give Olivia and Harold a story-line, they never had a gameplan. And once Harold's gone, they can't figure out what to do with Olivia either, so a few episodes later, in Episode 23, she too gets the boot. She gets a phone call from Harold, telling her life is unbearable without her -- and the look on her face is heartbreaking. She knows her life is empty without him as well -- and perhaps she realizes that if they can survive the wrath of Abby, and arguments over money, and all the horrible things they've said to each other this season, they can endure anything. It's the same look of silent anguish that made Crowe's performance in Season 9 such a standout -- that vivid understanding of how much true love hurts -- and you think, "What a find she was." And with that, she's gone (to join Harold in Florida) -- but what a way to go.
Alas, Melinda Culea. She was hired for one episode in Season 10, when Mack, wallowing in a midlife crisis, goes on a retreat and flirts with the female forest ranger. The writers liked her so much, they brought her back, but never figured out what to do with her. Mack fantasizes about her for the final third of Season 10, but the writers can't recreate the chemistry that Dobson and Culea had in the mountains; once they're on familiar turf, the pairing seems forced and misjudged. Her coupling with Greg is better -- they crop her hair nicely to age her, and give her a bit of a sarcastic streak -- but still she's mostly a sounding board. And when Anne Matheson shows up, she renders Paula obsolete. Paula can only offer sincerity -- the season's got that in spades; what it needs is irreverence. It's a mark of Lechowick and Latham's particular brilliance in the final third of Season 11 that they know just how to ease Paula off the show. As late as episode 20, she seems a fixture in Greg's life, one who's earned our respect; within a few episodes, we delight in watching Anne outmaneuver her. (Of course we do: Anne's the fun one.) And by episode 24, we realize that Greg -- drowning in guilt and self-pity over the death of his daughter -- has shut her out, and we'd rather not watch. Better they let her leave town with a little dignity -- and before she goes, she gets to alter the arc of the season. She offers Paige some advice, in case she's finding herself once again drawn to Greg: "There's the marrying kind, and there's the single kind, and it comes as a surprise, but in the end, the single kind is colossally, monumentally boring." In part, watching Greg dump all over Paula convinces Paige to marry Tom. Culea has served her purpose.
Ave atque vale, Lynne Moody. Her time on Knots was cut absurdly short. By the middle of Season 10, just a year into her run, they no longer knew what to do with her. (Once they'd decided that a romance between her and Ted Shackelford was too "daring," they couldn't envision a story-line for her.) Frank was useful to the writers: working at Mack's law practice, singing at the local club -- they could tie him to ongoing plots. But Larry Riley was merely a solid, dependable actor; Lynne Moody was an original, with a character that seemed fully formed. Pat always seemed to be thinking fast on her feet; it's why you believed she'd been a great surgeon, and why she could survive in WITSEC. And Moody's line readings were spectacular: so full of inflection, she could transform even the drabbest dialogue. Early in the season, Mack is trying to convince Karen he didn't sleep with Paula, and Pat mutters under her breath, "I don't believe this." You've never heard it said quite like that: both an aside and an embarrassed admonishment. At a dinner party for Danny and Val, Danny tells a joke, and Pat replies, "That's funny! Oh no!" It's a generic response, but she manages to seem both charmed and surprised -- and doubly surprised that the joke came from Danny, when everything she's heard about him has made him seem so menacing. Every time Moody opens her mouth, you're grateful for the thought she's put into her delivery. But for twenty episodes in Season 11, while Frank is doing buddy comedy with Mack, or singing, or playing guitar and harmonica, Pat is mostly offscreen -- and when she does appear, her airtime is minimal. In one episode, Frank has to watch over a witness, and Pat joins him at his office; she's in two scenes and has no lines. A few episodes later, Mack asks her to babysit. That's what she's reduced to, after just two seasons.
But her screentime picks up in episode 21, after Val, learning of Danny's past and panicking, stabs him with a letter opener. Pat shows up and -- in one of the season's most crackling scenes -- uses her skills as a surgeon to save his life. And from there, she decides to return to practicing medicine, even though it violates her contract with WITSEC. It ultimately becomes one of the tackiest soap tropes: let's give the underused actor a plot before we kill them off, so their death feels more meaningful. But even in hindsight, you don't care. While she's front and center, she's radiant: determined -- against all odds and in defiance of her disapproving husband -- to resume her career as a doctor. It's not just that she seems too much for Frank to handle; at times she seems too big for the screen to contain. The character's joy at returning to a profession she loves is inseparable from the actor's joy at being given a decent story-line. In its own way, it's as good a showcase for Moody as Season 3 was for Michele Lee, as Season 5 was for Donna Mills, as Season 6 was for Joan Van Ark, and as Season 14 will be for Kathleen Noone. And then, of course, Danny plows her down with his rental car, and by episode 25, she's brain dead. But Lynne Moody's resurgence is great fun while it lasts.
It would be nice to pretend that Season 11 continues just as strong to the end. It doesn't; the final four episodes are scrappier than the six that precede them. Once the stalker story-line gains prominence in episode 26, the plotting get muddier, and clear-headed story-telling is subordinated to titillation. Greg's plan to sabotage Paige's wedding provides a sturdy cliffhanger, and gives us a nice scene between him and Paige when he proffers a ring and a proposal that they live together. ("What do you think I am?" she asks, in another memorable Messina moment. "Flavor of the month?") But it's awful character assassination for Greg, who willfully destroys Paige's chance at happiness. Linda, towards the end of the season, is reinvented as a schemer and a vixen, and it's the only plotline in the final block that flops; it leaves Pat Peterson with nothing to do but mope for episodes on end -- where's the fun in that? (Why do the writers find it interesting to have Linda walk all over Michael? Their infatuation with Lar Park Lincoln's Linda is unfathomable to me -- but then I remember they created the character, and writers are always falling in love with their own creations. If they were looking to install someone at the Sumner Group as a rival for Paige, I wish they'd used Olivia. It would have been a neat way of letting us see how much of her mother's make-up -- and I don't mean the eye-liner -- had been passed on to her.) And by the time Gary and Val are engaged in a "caper" to get Danny out of Val's house, you feel the season sort of limping to a conclusion. But the season does what the previous one didn't: it leaves you eager for more. And given what a drag the first nineteen episodes are, that's something of a miracle.
A few footnotes, a couple ironies. Although the Sumner Group becomes the primary setting for the final four seasons, Lechowick and Latham never figure out how to make it work as a place of business. It simply becomes a backdrop for the same romantic entanglements and interpersonal rivalries. During the Lechowick-Latham era, no one seems to work on anything of consequence at the Sumner Group; the setting doesn't inform the stories. It'll take Ann Marcus, at the end of Season 13 and into Season 14, to fix that, as she creates a scenario that actually gives all the principals a stake in the success of the Sumner Group. But then, Season 14, ostensibly about cleaning up the mess left by John Romano at the top of Season 13, is also devoted to cleaning up much of the damage done by Lechowick and Latham in their final years. A half-dozen things Lechowick and Latham screw up in their final two seasons -- the conception of Anne, which grows limiting; the scattershot characterization of Claudia; the ineffectiveness of the Sumner Group as a means of generating story; the reduction of Val to "village idiot" and Karen to "voice of the people" -- are addressed and corrected by Marcus in just a few episodes.
Final footnote: I mentioned in an earlier post that the best-remembered Knots seasons have story-lines you can sum up in a few words: "Ciji," "Wolfbridge," "Val's babies." There's no getting around the fact that the rape story-line dominates Season 11; ironically, despite Lechowick and Latham's efforts to portray sexual assault as more than a statistic, that's just how it's come to be remembered in the Knots Landing history books. Season 11 is "the rape season." And although the story-line upends the show's very structure and undermines the credibility of key characters, Lechowick and Latham viewed it as such a success that they took on another social issue -- child abuse -- the following season. That plot proved arguably even more enervating than the rape story-line. And the mere existence of those two story-lines convinced John Romano -- when he took over as headwriter in Season 13 -- that Knots was supposed to tackle at least one hot-button topic each season, and he and his staff settled on adult illiteracy. That story proved so lame that it was one of the factors that led Joan Van Ark to quit the show. It calls to mind a Season 11 exchange (by Lechowick, of course):
Paula: "Don't you ever think about leaving your mark?"
Sumner: "Some might say what I leave is scars."
Lechowick and Latham try to leave their mark, but they stick around so long -- and get so caught up in their own PR -- they end up leaving scars. At one point in Season 11, Karen refers to Open Mike as "my show," and Diane is quick to correct her: "Our show. The show." Lechowick and Latham, during their final two seasons, come to see Knots as "their show," and it ultimately proves their undoing. But the final third of Season 11 -- enormously entertaining -- is their last gasp of greatness. It's not impeccable, but it's indelible.
Want more Knots? Check out my posts on Season 1, which establishes the characters and struggles to set the tone; Season 3, in which the show finally masters the challenges inherent in its premise; Season 4, a shrewd and ultimately successful reinvention; Season 7, in which Dallas scribe David Paulsen, newly installed as headwriter, shows an astonishing lack of affinity for the characters; Season 8, in which the characters return, but the plotting goes haywire; Season 9, in which the show once again gets back to basics, after a couple unrecognizable years; and Season 14, in which the great soap writer Ann Marcus, who'd guided the series during a critical time in its history, returns for one last glorious hurrah.